It was just two seasons ago that the Oklahoma City Thunder had the best young trio in the NBA. With scoring champion Kevin Durant, All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and the Sixth Man of the Year James Harden it looked as though the Thunder would be set for years.
After signing both Durant and Westbrook to long term contracts, the Thunder had to decide whether to keep Harden or power forward Serge Ibaka. Oklahoma City decided to keep Ibaka at a lower price than it would have cost them to sign Harden to a max contract. Right before the 2012-13 season started, Harden was shipped to the Houston Rockets in a package that included Kevin Martin.
Martin played only one season with Oklahoma City and was not comfortable with the sixth man role. He averaged only 14 points per game, which was his lowest total since 2005-06. The biggest difference was that he lacked the playmaking ability that Harden brought off the bench. Martin is a set shooter who has never averaged more than 2.8 assists per game.
With salary cap restrictions, the Thunder had very limited resources this offseason other than a few draft picks. They lost Martin and their only additions were first round pick Steven Adams and journeyman Ryan Gomes. The Thunder had to depend on guard Reggie Jackson who filled in for Westbrook during the postseason to be that scorer and playmaker off the bench. So far this season, he has averaged 10.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game as the sixth man.
On Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs, Jackson and the much maligned Thunder bench stepped up to lead them to a 94-88 victory. Westbrook had one of the worst nights of his career going only 2-for-16 and scoring only eight points. The entire starting lineup for the Thunder shot a combined 22-for-60 from the field which is only 37 percent. The bench, on the other hand, combined to go 17-for-24 from the field which is just under 71 percent and contributed 39 points. Jackson led the way scoring 23 of those 39 points including 14 in the fourth quarter.
Jackson may not be James Harden, but if he can continue to perform the way he did last night the Thunder may have found their next sixth man of the year. I expect Jackson to continue to get playing time in the fourth quarter at the point guard position which will allow Westbrook to be more of a scorer than a facilitator. This is exactly what they did with Harden and they could not do with Martin a year ago.